1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Ageing, Development and Social Protection

Case Study by Paul Johnson

  • Project from: 2001 to 2003



This paper examines the interaction between long-term economic and social change and the status of older people in Britain, and uses this case study to illuminate more general patterns that are common to advanced industrial economies. The paper is divided into five sections.

i) Demographic background and comparison

This section outlines the demographic trajectory of Britain, and compares it with other industrialised and industrialising countries. Although it is often presumed that older people were few and far between in pre-modern societies, this is not true. Around 1700, when Britain was a primarily agricultural and rural economy, over 10% of the population was aged over 60. The proportion of elders in the population declined to less than 7% by 1820, but has grown from around 8% in 1900 to over 21% today. It is clear, therefore, that even though life expectancy at birth was low in pre-modern times, older people constituted a large part of the adult population - 15-25% - well before the 20th century onset of more rapid population ageing. It is therefore wrong to assume that older people have gained visibility and critical mass only in recent times.

ii) Participation

This section examines not only the presence of older people in the labour market, but also their informal (household or communal) activities, both relating to production and consumption. It broadly relates to the active involvement of older persons in civil society. Formal retirement from the labour market was rare prior to 1900, though physical incapacity limited the ability of a large minority of older persons to engage in paid work. Since 1950 there has been a dramatic fall in older-age employment for both men and women in Britain, and the paper examines the causes of this, and evaluates the relative impact of public pension and welfare programmes, employer behaviour, individual choice, and social norms. Less paid work has given older people more time for other activities, and the paper looks at their more general participation in society in various forms of associational activity.

iii) Well-being

This section considers economic well-being (or lack thereof) and the provision of welfare support by family and by formal and informal public systems, together with the physical well-being of older people and their care and treatment when ill. It broadly relates to the passive treatment of older persons by civil society. The paper emphasises the enduring importance of informal support for the well-being of older persons, and considers the extent to which this has been enhanced or undermined by the development of public health and social services.

iv) Social status

This section covers the social position of older individuals and of the elderly as a group, as determined by political, legal, medical, and cultural rules and customs. It broadly relates to the construction of categories about and by older people in civil society. These categories have been subject to significant change over time, as a result of specific legal and political developments, and in response to changing social attitudes, particularly towards age and gender. One of the key issues here is the extent to which older persons now and in the past have been meaningfully categorised according to their chronological age, rather than their physical capabilities, occupation, wealth, social class, ethnicity, gender or other characteristics. The historical evidence reveals that in Britain there was never any 'golden age' for older people in the past when they were respected and valued because of their age. On the other hand, elders have never consistently been denigrated. The social status of each older person has been, and continues to be, the result of a process of negotiation in which social norms and individual attributes have each played a role.

v) Patterns in industrialised economies

This final section will compare the long-run trajectory of older age participation, well-being and status in Britain with that of a number of other industrialised countries, to see the extent to which there have been common patterns of response and adaptation to the process of modernisation and economic development.